Who Was Nathaniel in the Bible?

I became intrigued with the story of Nathanael the apostle while watching the TV series “The Chosen.” They portray Nathanael as crying out to God, but receiving no response. Have you ever felt unseen by God? Have you felt He has been silent as you called out to Him? We find Nathaniel’s unusual and unique story in only a few verses, but there is so much to learn from his life and encounter with Jesus.

Nathaniel the Apostle- silhouette of man sitting under leafy tree at dusk

Was Nathanael One of the 12 Disciples?

Yes, he was on the list of the apostles of Jesus (Mark 3:18). He was from Cana of Galilee. 

Nathaniel vs Nathanael 

We see his name frequently spelled two different ways. The name Nathanael in Hebrew means “God has given” or “gift of God.”

Nathaniel is simply the most common, modern spelling of this name, with the same spiritual meaning.

Nathaniel and Bartholomew 

But just to add to the confusion…

We only see him called Nathanael in John’s Gospel. Matthew, Mark, and Luke refer to him as the apostle “Bartholomew.”

The name Bartholomew comes from being named after his father– “bar-talmai”, meaning “son of Tolmai” in Aramaic. Bartholomew is his surname (last name).

Bible scholars widely accept, however, that Nathanael and Bartholomew were the same person.

The Story of Nathaniel in the Bible 

We hear very little about Nathanael except for his name on lists of the disciples in all 4 Gospels and in the book of Acts. 

But the Gospel of John gives us an encounter Nathanael has with Jesus, which seems very unusual. We find this story in John 1:44-51.

Philip and Nathanael 

As Jesus was calling His disciples early in His ministry, He left for Galilee and it was there that He found Philip. Jesus calls Philip to follow Him, which he did.

“The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, ‘follow me.’ Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote- Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’” vv43-45.

The good news of the Messiah’s arrival was not something Philip could keep to himself. He immediately goes to his friend Nathanael to witness about whom he has seen.

It’s interesting that Philip goes back to the ancient Scripture when describing Jesus. 

Both men were well versed in the Scriptures and knew the prophecies of the Messiah to come from Moses and the prophets. Nathanael would have easily recognized Philip’s reasoning.

But instead of running with excitement to meet Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, Nathanael responds with a skeptical remark:

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” v46.

Why Was Nazareth Despised? 

Many shared Nathanael’s prejudice.

Interestingly, we don’t find Nazareth mentioned at all in the Old Testament- not one mention in all the genealogies and Bible stories.

Nazareth was an obscure, tiny, far-flung village. It may also be despised because the Romans stationed an army unit there. 

To accept the Messiah coming from such a lowly place as Nazareth seemed unlikely for their future King.

[But check this out!-

Interestingly, the name “Nazareth,” comes from the Hebrew word “the branch,”–Neser.¹ 

When Isaiah hints at the coming Messiah, he says, “The Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious.” (4:2)

Jeremiah 33:15 alludes to Jesus as the Branch, saying, “I will cause to grow up to David a Branch of righteousness.” 

Maybe Nazareth wasn’t as far-fetched as they thought??]

Anyway, back to our story…

Come and See in the Bible 

Philip did not argue with Nathanael’s comment or question his doubts. He simply answers, “Come and see.” v46. Philip’s invitation to Nathanael was to meet Jesus and decide for himself.

This is not the first time we hear this invitation.

Come and See Bible Verses 

The preaching of John the Baptist was to point people to Jesus. When John sees Jesus walking by, John says, “Look, the Lamb of God!” John 1:35.

• Two disciples of John (most likely Andrew and John) heard this and began following Him along a road. Jesus asks them what they want. They ask Him where He is staying, and Jesus replies, “Come and you will see.” John 1:39.

•The woman at the well drops everything to run back to town after encountering Jesus, saying, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did!” John 4:29.

•Psalm 66:5- “Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works on man’s behalf!” (In remembrance of God’s parting of the Red Sea to save the Israelites.)

•Isaiah 66:18- “And they will come and see my glory.” (Referring to end times.)

Jesus extends this same invitation to all, but doubts can keep some away from Him. Or perhaps they know very little of Jesus or don’t know Christians in their personal lives.

“Come and see” is a wonderful way to invite others to meet Jesus and make their own decision. Nathanael put aside his prejudice and did just that.

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Nathanael and Jesus 

“When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, He said to him, ‘Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit.’” v47.

What an amazing and humbling compliment from Jesus!

Nathanael had never met Jesus in person, but Jesus knew everything about him. He knew Nathanael’s sincere and open spirit to the truth, knowledge of Scripture, what he believed, his character, and the condition of his heart. 

Nathanael was everything Jesus was looking for in an Israelite. He believed in the promises of God.

Nathanael accepted Jesus’ assessment of his character but wondered how He could have possibly known about him.

“How do you know me?”, asks Nathanael.

Jesus explains: “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” v48.

“Then Nathanael declared, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.’” v49.

The Holy Spirit opened Nathanael’s eyes at the mention of the fig tree, and he immediately realizes that only God could have seen him there and known his very thoughts.²

Nathanael realizes Jesus knew his heart and everything about him. He accepts Jesus as Messiah at that very moment. Philip had been right! 

Nathanael proclaims Jesus’ unique relationship between Father and Son and His power as Messiah and King. This was the boldest faith claim made about Jesus up to this point.

Nathanael under the Fig Tree 

What was Nathanael doing under the fig tree?

The common phrase “under the fig tree” described a time of studying the Torah. It also was a Jewish custom to actually sit under a leafy fig tree to sit and pray and study Scripture.

When Jesus saw him under a fig tree, Nathanael may have been spending time meditating on God’s Word or simply resting. Either way, Jesus knew about Nathanael before they even met. Jesus knew Nathanael of Cana would be an excellent disciple.

He responds to Nathanael’s statement of faith with a promise:

“Jesus said, ‘You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.’ He then added, ‘I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’” John 1:50-51.

John 1:51 Meaning 

While this reply of Jesus may sound like a random or confusing statement to us, Nathanael would have understood this promise’s reference to the Bible patriarch Jacob, the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. 

He also would have recognized Jesus’ initial greeting, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit” as a reference to Jacob.

Jacob practiced deceit by claiming his brother’s birthright and blessing (among other things). Jacob changed his ways later in life and God changed his name to “Israel.”

Jesus is comparing Nathanael (an honest and true “Israel”) with Jacob (a deceitful one.)

Jesus continues His references to Jacob when He speaks of a dream given to Jacob of a stairway/ladder from heaven to earth with the Lord standing above. 

The story of Jacob’s ladder mimics the dream Jesus speaks about to Nathanael. (Genesis 28:10-15.)

But Jesus promises Nathanael an even greater sign than Jacob saw- to see heaven open and to connect Jesus, the Son of Man, as the ladder, the link between heaven and earth that we need.

Nathanael, Disciple of Jesus 

This is the end of Nathanael’s story in the Bible. We hear no other details of his life. The truths we learn, however, are still profound.

•Isn’t it interesting that Jesus didn’t confront Nathanael about his skepticism? Our God is so kind and gracious when we come to Him with questions and doubts!

•How comforting to know that God knows an honestly seeking heart and every single thing going on in our lives. We are never “unseen” by our loving God. ♥   

He knows our every fear, struggle, and trial. He knows all our thoughts, hopes, and dreams. 

•Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus was so powerful and personal that all his doubts immediately melted away.

In the same way, each one of us needs a personal encounter with Jesus to accept Him and bring genuine change to our lives.

Inviting Others to Come and See

•Like Nathanael’s friend Philip, we have the privilege of revealing Jesus to others. We can simply say, “come and see” to those who are skeptical or indifferent to Jesus.

We can encourage them that Jesus loves them and will meet them wherever they are in their lives.

While we do not possess the power to change people’s minds and hearts, we can introduce them to the One who can- Jesus. 

We can pray for them, asking God to give them a willingness to listen and learn, and for the Holy Spirit to open their eyes to a life-changing encounter with Jesus, just as Nathanael had.

Reflection Questions:

•Jesus calls us to “follow Him.” What does “following Jesus” mean to you? What is required of you?

•Have you ever felt God does not see you or care about your circumstances? How does the story of Nathanael give you comfort?

•What can you learn from Philip’s and Jesus’ response to Nathanael’s skepticism?

•How does your life show others what Jesus is like?

•What are ways you can invite people to “come and see” today?

Blessings!

AnnMarie

All Scripture is taken from the NIV version unless specified otherwise.

¹https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/jn-1-43-46-what-was-wrong-with-nazareth/

²“No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” 1 Corinthians 12:3b.

Are you interested in watching The Chosen? Click here for a link to this free series.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos, Canva

4 thoughts on “Who Was Nathaniel in the Bible?”

  1. Haron Akumonyo Isiaho

    What an insightful detailed material with relevant references. God bless and give more revelations to build His Body. Am humbly and sincerely blessed – Shalom!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words of encouragement! I love this story- we are given very few details, but each one is packed with beautiful truths. 🙂

  2. Very interesting. I love the “come and see” way to introduce people to Christ. Gives me a new perspective on witnessing.
    Thanks, Ann

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